This argument sounds persuasive to many people. After all, vapers don’t really look as if they have given up, do they? They’re still taking puffs of nicotine from something, so surely they haven’t actually beaten their addiction? And isn’t breaking free of nicotine addiction what quitting is all about?

This might surprise you, but the answers to all these questions is No. In fact the idea that vaping is a similar addiction to smoking is one of the worst arguments people use against e-cigarettes. There are two main reasons for this:

How addictive is nicotine?

Nicotine addiction
Studies have never reported any risk for dependence on pure nicotine by never-smokers.

You’ll find a lot of people claiming that nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. That certainly sounds pretty alarming; after all these are famously addictive drugs. Add in the fact that people who try to quit smoking actually have a worse success rate than people who try to quit heroin and it’s easy to see where the idea comes from.

Not so fast, though. Yes, cigarette smoke is very addictive – but there’s a lot more in cigarette smoke than just nicotine. In fact there are at least 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, and scientists aren’t even completely sure what they all are yet. Many of them are known to be toxic, or to cause cancer, and some of the others have some interesting effects too.

One of the most interesting things in tobacco smoke is a class of chemicals called monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs. These are often used as anti-depressant drugs and they’re very good for treating PTSD, panic disorder and Parkinson’s disease. The problem with them being in cigarette smoke is that they interact with nicotine, which is also an anti-depressant.

MAOIs on their own aren’t addictive, but combine them with nicotine and they become very addictive indeed. It’s this combination that makes smoking so addictive; the latest evidence says that nicotine on its own doesn’t have the same effect at all. We’re all used to the idea of nicotine being extremely addictive, but research suggests that it just isn’t. Patients in medical trials have used high-strength nicotine patches every day for six months without becoming dependent on it; scientists have found that it’s almost impossible to get rats to take nicotine when they can have sugar cubes instead.

Obviously, if nicotine isn’t actually very addictive, vaping isn’t an addiction like smoking…

Does it matter anyway?

Nicotine addiction is a myth
Many scientist say that nicotine should be considered separately from smoking.

There’s another problem with the addiction argument, too. It isn’t just wrong; it’s completely irrelevant.

How often have you heard someone say “I really should quit smoking” or “I’ve bought a stop-smoking book”? Probably quite often. Now, how often have you heard someone say “I want to end my nicotine addiction”? Most likely never. There’s a reason for that.

There are a lot of reasons why many smokers want to quit. They’re worried about the health risks; they don’t like the smell of stale smoke; they’re appalled at how much it costs. But these are all problems with smoking. None of them have anything to do with nicotine, or indeed addiction. They’re all consequences of putting heavily taxed cigarettes in your mouth several times a day and setting fire to them.

Anyone who argues that vapers are “still addicted” hasn’t just made a mistake; they don’t even understand what the discussion is about. The reasons to quit smoking are all practical ones, to do with improving your quality of life. Arguments about carrying on the addiction aren’t practical – they’re moral. And morality is a personal opinion. If someone thinks it’s immoral to continue using nicotine after switching to vaping that’s up to them, but they have no right to force their opinion on others. It’s just what they believe, and clearly that means it’s not a valid argument against vaping.

Many vapers start off with a high-nicotine liquid then gradually taper the strength down, often to zero – which isn’t hard, and backs up the point that nicotine isn’t actually very addictive. Others enjoy the stimulant effects of nicotine and don’t make any effort to cut down. Either option is fine, because the point of switching has nothing to do with freeing yourself of sinful addictions; it’s just to stop smoking.

Difference between addiction and dependence


“Addiction” doesn’t mean what most people think it does. When they say “addictive” what they really mean is “dependence-forming”. For something to be addictive it isn’t enough that people find it hard to stop using it; it has to actually be harmful as well. If you need to use something but it isn’t doing you any real harm you’re dependent on it – but you’re not addicted to it. A good example is chocolate, which a lot of people seem to be “addicted” to (but aren’t really).

At the levels found in an electronic cigarette, nicotine isn’t harmful at all – and that means, at the very worst, vaping is dependency-forming. This basically makes the addiction argument meaningless. Even if vaping is as hard to quit as smoking (which it isn’t), does it matter? At a fraction of the cost, and with at least 95% of the health risk removed, it’s a change worth making anyway.

  • sammango

    You may want to check the last three paragraphs, they seem to have escaped the editor!